The following is a guest blog by Donna Koh, Music Reader Services Librarian
This blog is for those classical music lovers who marvel at the beauty and versatility of the human voice but find many operas overdramatic, long and overwhelming. If I may make a confession, I am one of those music lovers. Fortunately for us, there is another genre of classical vocal music called art songs, typically written for a solo voice with piano accompaniment. They provide a deeply satisfying musical experience in an intimate setting without the costumes, stage settings and orchestra.
My favorite art songs are German Lieder of the Romantic era set to the poems of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century German language poets such as Heine, Goethe, Eichendorff, and some whose names may have long been forgotten had their poems not been immortalized by a brilliant composer. These songs combine poetry and music: thoughts and expression distilled into the chosen few words and musical notes. I can’t think of many art forms that are as potent, multifaceted and gratifying as these songs.
At the risk of offending some singers, I must state that the piano part is equally important as the voice in this genre. The piano evokes a variety of moods and at times, conveys the parts of the protagonist’s story too painful to be expressed verbally. In Schubert’s songs, the piano describes a setting in nature that may at times be friendly, indifferent or hostile, bringing the listener close to what the protagonist is feeling at the moment. In some of Schumann’s songs, the piano provides glimpses of the subconscious mind of the protagonist, helping the audience experience the depths of the hero’s psyche. For a successful Lied performance, the pianist and singer must form a tight collaboration to present a musically and emotionally unified performance.
As you may already know, classical vocal recital programs print the translation of the songs side by side with the text in the original language because it is essential to know the text in order to fully appreciate these songs. However, the fact that I only possess a rudimentary understanding of German does not deter me from being totally engaged in the performance. In fact, I find myself paying close attention to the vocal nuances and inflections, instead of trying to comprehend the meaning of the individual words.
Are you ready to explore German Lieder? There are a number of nineteenth-century composers who wrote Lieder. Arguably, four of the most beloved are Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf. Here are some offerings from the music section that will help you become acquainted with the nineteenth-century German Lied.
DBM01698, “Michael Barclay, Take me to Your Lieder” is a recording of Barclay’s public lecture on German Lieder using examples from the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and others. This lecture will give you a general sense of the genre and introduce you to the recordings by some of the great lieder singers.
DBM03680 is a recording of a masterclass given by a much-celebrated German singer Thomas Quasthoff who established an international song competition called “Das Lied.” With the masterclass participants, Quasthoff focuses on the diction, technical, stylistic, and interpretative aspects of singing.
DBM01219 “Everybody’s Favorites” for high voice is a sound recording of the piano part only to selected songs including works by Schubert, Schumann and Wolf.
BRM22803 “Fifty Selected Songs for High Voice” by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Strauss This book has the German text but no English translations.
BRM30100 “Lieder Line by Line and Word for Word” offers well-known Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler and other composers with a literal translation of the German text and “an English prose version of the poem giving the clear meaning and mood” according to the annotation for the title in Voyager.
Can’t wait to sample some German Lieder? Listen to this 1915 recording of “Wohin?” (To which place?), the second song in Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin” (The beautiful miller’s daughter), available from the Library of Congress National Jukebox. In this song, the wanderer hears the rushing brook which beckons to him, leading him to the mill. You can hear the bubbling stream in the piano part.
I hope to write more about the composers that I mentioned in this blog and their contributions to the genre. Hopefully, these songs will bring you a compelling and moving musical experience as they do for me.